Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister
Antonis Samaras moved Friday to ease tensions between their two
nations, with the German leader calling for a show of solidarity in
Athens' battle to remain a member of the euro.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Samaras, Merkel rebuked critics of Greece's efforts to clean up its state finances, saying: "It is the duty of people who bear political responsibility in a shared Europe to join things together."
But she was silent about Samaras' request for an extension of the deadlines for Athens to cut spending. Nothing could be considered until a group of experts have reported on Athens' progress in implementing tough reforms, she told reporters.
A senior opposition politician said later he was convinced Merkel would, in the end, grant Greece a time extension.
Joachim Poss, whose Social Democrats have urged more help for Greece, said he now believed the government was working behind the scenes to forge a consensus with Athens.
"The chancellor is going to have to make this clear to her own supporters," said Poss, referring to a range of centre-right figures who have called for Greece to be "made an example of" or expelled from the eurozone.
Volker Kauder, a senior member of Merkel's own Christian Democrats, said just before Samaras arrived that a Greek exit would not pose a problem.
"We have the rescue packages, which we have built, as well as substantial means to ensure that contagion does not occur," he said.
Merkel brushed aside a question about Kauder's remarks, saying she was not aware of anyone in her party who wanted to see Greece out of the 17-member bloc.
She told reporters that the aim of her talks on Thursday with French President Francois Hollande had also been keeping Greece in the currency zone. She is expected to have similar talks with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti next week.
Samaras lashed out at the "cacophony" from those Germans who have raised the prospect of Greece leaving the euro.
He said his talks with Merkel had represented the "starting gun of a new relationship" between their two nations. The two had another 45-minute talk after their press conference.
In Athens, the opposition criticized Samaras, whose diplomatic offensive to shift Greece's deficit-cutting target for 2014 back to 2016 takes him to Paris on Saturday.
"The prime minister is giving his all and getting nothing in return," sneered the radical left-wing party, SYRIZA, in a statement.
The ultra-conservative Independent Greeks accused him of not trying hard enough for a time extension. The extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party accused Merkel of behaving like a loan shark.
At a press briefing earlier Friday, a spokesman for the German Finance Ministry confirmed that the government had set up more than a year ago a special committee to deal with the debt crisis, including studying the implications of a possible Greek exit.
Merkel told reporters that Europe had to wait for a report by the so-called troika - the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund - before any decisions can be reached on Greece. The troika's report is not due until October.
In the meantime, Greek had to meet the commitments as set out in the bailout deal that it has secured with international lenders, the chancellor said.
Samaras is asking for more time to roll out the 11.5-billion-euro (14.4-billion-dollar) cost-cutting programme Greece needs to introduce in exchange for the second instalment of funds, insisting that Greece is now sincerely pushing through reforms.
"We don't want any more money; we have not asked for more funds but we need time to breathe," Samaras said.
Greece is now in its fifth year of recession.
Many analysts believe that Europe will eventually help Athens over its latest obstacle and agree to paying out the next instalment, worth 31.5 billion euros.
Merkel stressed Germany would do all it could to help Greece to emerge from the crisis.
"The euro crisis will not be solved at a stroke of the wand, but step by step. That requires a lot of work. Germany is bound in friendship to Greece and wants to be helpful going along this route," she said.
Underscoring the political pressure facing Merkel, a poll published Friday for German TV N24 by market researcher group Emnid showed that 75 per cent of Germans were opposed to granting any concessions to the reform plan already agreed to with Greece.
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